What Indian Pop Culture Taught Us About Sex
Notions of British proprietary and the “delicacy of womanhood” were violently drilled into India’s so-called “untamed” subjects.
I don’t ever remember seeing a sex scene in an Indian movie throughout my childhood or adolescence in Mumbai.
That’s not because my parents were strict and didn’t allow me to watch R-rated movies (they didn’t, but we all did, anyway), but because they just didn’t seem to exist. The first kiss — and just a kiss — I saw on-screen was an extremely dramatized rendition in Jab We Met, which was released in 2007, when I was just over 12 years old.
Even now, I could count the number of actual Indian sex scenes in commercially popular cinema on one hand.
In India, sex has been a cultural taboo for decades. The birthplace of the Kama Sutra, India’s once carnal, sexually progressive customs were systematically and painstakingly wiped out by centuries of British colonialism. Notions of British proprietary and the “delicacy of womanhood” were violently drilled into India’s so-called “untamed” subjects. Just as all postcolonial states are still reeling from this ideological aftermath, the idea of sexual reticence stuck in India. Eventually it morphed into a tool for religious nationalists to proclaim values of purity and the sanctity of marriage, and sex for the sake of enjoying sex became a distant dream — especially for women.
To be clear, it’s not like Indians weren’t having sex in real life; our population didn’t go from 300 million to 1.3 billion in 50 years magically. But to acknowledge it as a thing of pleasure, particularly female pleasure, simply wasn’t okay with the increasingly conservative status quo — in real life or in pop culture.
Despite the country’s multi-billion-dollar film industry frequently churning out movies about love and romance, actual sex was prohibited from being shown on screen for several decades. The Central Board of Film Certification, or the “Censor Board” as it’s commonly called, was founded in 1952 by the newly independent Indian government.
It is responsible for not only categorizing movies for various audiences but also has the authority to censor out any content — from showing the consumption of liquor and cigarettes to violence to sexual content of any kind. Failure to do so results in the movie not being allowed to have a commercial release.
Sexual desire cannot be tamed, no matter how hard a government tries. Sex sells, for better or worse.
In the case of Indian cinema, I’d say with little hesitation it was definitely for the worse. Because filmmakers couldn’t show explicit sexual content, they had to find ways to suggest and imply it through visual allegory. Thus were born “item numbers,” which are super-sexualized dance sequences that have absolutely nothing to do with the plot. They began appearing as early as the 1950s and 60s, with cabaret dancer Helen now hailed as among the most iconic of her time, with songs like “Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo” from the film Howrah Bridge (1958).
Today, raunchier and more explicit than before, item numbers are present in nearly every big-budget movie. Malaika Sherawat in Munni Badnaam Hui (which loosely translates to “Munni was violated”) or Katrina Kaif in Chikni Chameli and Zara Zara Touch Me were almost essential for so many prepubescent boys’ sexual awakenings.
Featuring a literally objectified “item girl,” these songs (with pretty aggressive sexual metaphors for lyrics) are designed entirely for the male gaze, meant to satisfy the “gratuitous and perverse cravings of men”. While actresses may not mind the superficial sexual liberation they claim to provide, for many young women in cinema it’s an unspoken rule that they would have to, at some point, be willing to do an item number to advance their careers.
Along with these unnecessary additions, when sex or sexual romance is actually integral to the plot, they’re often treated with slapstick humour and corny visual metaphors. From an incredibly strange hugging sequence featuring Hritik Roshan in Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon (2003) meant to symbolize sex, to an infamous scene from Aiyyaa (2012) where petrol flies from a strategically placed gas pump as an allegory for ejaculation (yes, this is real) — there is a vast shortage of frank, candid representations of sex, even now.
More importantly, because sex was considered shameful and taboo for so long, filmmakers tended to cast it in a negative light to get away with showing more sexual content. As long as they didn’t encourage it, it’s fine, right? As a result, in the 1980s and 90s, Bollywood movies had tons of sexualized rape scenes — with actors Ranjeeth and Shakti Kapoor “jokingly” called the Kings of Rape (again, this is real). Scenes like the ones in Gumsoom (1982), Angaarey (1998) and Prem Granth (1996) would be met with cheers from the predominantly male audiences — particularly because they featured the domination of famous Indian actresses like Madhuri Dixit.
While I didn’t grow up on movies like these, they set the precedent for present-day cinema to normalize rape culture and evoke many of the same misogynistic tropes. Mainstream Indian pop culture is filled with romanticized tropes of massively adored actors stalking and “eve-teasing” (catcalling) women. From Akshay Kumar non-consensually kissing Kareena Kapoor in Kambhakkt Ishq (2009) to the majority of accused predator Salmaan Khan’s movies, including the Dabangg trilogy (2010–12), the hero is often shown aggressively pressuring the heroine into going out with him — and boom! They fall madly in love.
This formulaic and sexist narrative that completely ignores consent — or even basic respect — is still extremely popular among Indian audiences. Because both cinema and celebrity culture in India are massive, they wield great influence on shaping the way people think and behave in society. It’s as unsurprising and heartbreaking then that India has such a high occurrence of rape and sexual assault.
Not unlike America, pop culture has contributed substantially to normalizing sexist humour and misogynistic behaviour. While American movies had their fair share of censoring promiscuity and placing the “blame” for sexual exhibition on women, a lot of the cultural codes being exported from Hollywood to the world today include unrealistic standards of beauty, especially for women,, an inflated emphasis on losing your virginity and an overall exaggeration of how amazing sex is supposed to be every time it’s done.
All hope is not lost. Far from it. I grew up in a time when every kind of pop culture I engaged with — both Indian and American — told me that sex is not something to be openly discussed, desired or deserved. But I’ve witnessed in the last few years alone a phenomenal increase in the young artists, activists and communities in India challenging age-old taboos and expressing themselves with a fierce confidence that won’t dim anytime soon.
Increasingly more movies, like Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) and Isqiya (2010), are being made that challenge the status quo by discussing sex freely, candidly and sensitively, and with streaming services, like Netflix, they are no longer reliant on the Censor Board to police the content they want to show.
As discourse expands globally on representation, inclusivity, feminism, and sexual liberation, pop culture too will change. As viewers, we just need to hold it to a higher standard, unlearn the conditioning we’ve faced all our lives, and — most importantly — make choices about ourselves that feel right for us.